Traditionally, fences, hedges, and walls defined land boundaries, confined livestock, adorned the landscape, and provided security for people and personal property. Fences stand as a physical expression of the complex and sometimes precarious relationships that exist both between humanity and the natural world, and among separate members of society. Because they continue to be prominent and significant landscape elements, it is useful for today's historic homeowners to have a basic understanding of the best approaches to the design and maintenance of fences.
Fence styles vary widely by their use, locale, and period. In choosing fence designs, it may be useful to start at your local archives or historical society in order to find regional historic fence details or even historic images of your house with a long-forgotten fence. Split-rail fences and fences with log rails have historically been favored, and continue to be appropriate, for rural and agricultural property associated with any period. Distinct from the stone walls that are vanishing symbols of New England's history, the humble split-rail or log fence is relatively easy to build and repair. Historic homeowners have also found that split-rail fences can be adapted to create an effective, appropriate, transparent, and unobtrusive pet enclosure by attaching lightweight wire fencing along the inside of the rails to screen the wide gaps.
Modern stockade and picket fences have their origins in the vertical palings of pointed, rough-hewn saplings that were employed in New England in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The modern stockade fence design, however, radically changes the aspect of a property and is not recommended for use in historic settings. On the other hand, variants of the picket fence design have been used from the First Period through the twentieth century, and the style has become a symbol of domestic bliss in the popular imagination.
Generally, the simpler the house design, the simpler the fence-it is important to match the scale and grandeur of the fence to the house it will accompany. Picket fences associated with vernacular house types of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries were often low constructions with evenly spaced, narrow pickets. A wide variety of picket and post designs was used, and the elements terminated in all manner of pointed, straight, arrowhead, and rounded patterns. The earliest of these picket fences would have been unpainted, but it is recommended that today's historic homeowners paint or otherwise treat all surfaces of their fences, particularly the end grain, to protect them from damaging moisture.
Fences of wide, vertical boards, attached to supporting stringers and butted against one another to form low partitions, were also used in rural and vernacular applications. These board fences could be cut straight across the top or be more refined, with molded coping running along the top to protect the end grain. Board fences were typically painted, and they have also persisted in various forms through to the twentieth century.
Because the fence posts of picket and board fences are set, optimally, three feet into the ground, they are constantly exposed to moisture. To slow deterioration, property owners historically sought to fashion four- to six-inch square (or diameter) posts of seasoned heartwood in either red cedar, white oak, chestnut, or black locust. White pine was generally used to create the stringers and pickets or boards.
In the Georgian and Federal periods, when symmetry and rhythm were important elements of design, the picket fence was a favorite choice. During these periods, the fence posts became more prominent features as they grew into tall, imposing piers that could be carved with pilasters or shaped to look like masonry, often topped with flat, molded caps, or classical finials such as urns or eggs. Pickets could alternate in height or be graduated to create sweeping curves, they could be square or turned, flat or pointed, but they generally became more narrow and fine in keeping with the attenuated style of the time. Such fences may also be adapted for houses in the Colonial Revival style.
Wood fences continued to be popular through the nineteenth century, first with refined, clean Greek Revival designs, and later with Gothic and other versions appropriate to each Victorian style. Wrought- and cast-iron fences were commonly used in the nineteenth century as well. Second Empire and Victorian homeowners in both urban and rural areas began to employ cast-iron in patterns of ever-increasing complexity, with fanciful tracery and botanical motifs. The heavy panels were typically supported by cast-iron or granite posts.
The primary consideration for historic homeowners, however, is whether a new fence should be built at all. If there is an existing historic fence on the property, it is recommended that the homeowner work to preserve and maintain that fence in situ. Even if the existing fence appears to be later than the style of the house, it has stood on the property through the passage of time. The existing historic fence, then, will generally be more accurate, valuable, and appropriate than any new fence that is meant to match the house could be. For this reason, if the existing historic fence has deteriorated beyond repair, any fence that replaces it should precisely recreate the dimension, design, and material of either the fence that is removed or one documented in a historic image of the property.
To preserve an existing historic fence, the homeowner must first determine the extent of any deterioration or other damage. Only those portions of a wood fence that are in an advanced state of deterioration or irretrievably damaged need be replaced. New portions of wood matching the surrounding wood in species, dimension, and appearance should be spliced in to replace the deteriorated or damaged portions. Cast-iron fencing that is rusted or damaged is more complicated to repair, and it should be evaluated and restored by a professional experienced in the preservation of historic cast iron. Whether of wood or cast iron, historic fencing should be inspected, cleaned, caulked if necessary, and painted regularly to protect it from moisture and extend its life.
Through history, New Englanders have extended the care, innovation, and artisanry that they applied in the design and construction of their homes to their ever-evolving fence designs. With attention, historic fences tie us to past occupants and continue to serve as gentle reminders of the stability and security they have provided over time.